Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar Straus Giroux. 247 pages. $25.00.

Marilynne Robinson has no use for reality, or what passes for it.

As Robinson sees it, in her 1998 book The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, the popular idea of the “real world” is just the materialist legacy of Darwin and Nietzsche: a dull “collective fiction” where people are slabs of meat wandering aimlessly through a universe that couldn’t care less.

If science and culture fail to honor the mystery of existence, Robinson’s does her bit to make up for it. She makes her own reality, as novelists should. Her stunning 1980 debut, Housekeeping, is a domestic drama that is as melancholy as it is abstract. The story of two young girls raised by a free-spirited but unstable aunt following their mother’s suicide, it doesn't call to mind other novelists so much as poets like Wallace Stevens or Emily Dickinson. Her prose penetrates everything it touches, and the book is told with such utter simplicity that it seems distilled.

The same is equally true of her second novel, which arrives nearly a quarter-century later and raises the stakes even higher. It’s a novel with a spiritual vision as large and generous as it's predecessor's poetic one.

Robinson’s narrator, John Ames, is a dying 76-year-old Congregationalist minister living in the dusty backwater of Gilead, Iowa in 1956. His story is an extended letter in the form of a journal, addressed to the six-year-old son he won't live to see grow up. The book is a testament to his life and times, a conversation about what he's learned, and a search for a divine sense of meaning.

Ames has spent most of his life in Gilead, where his father and grandfather were also preachers. Up until the last few years, he’s lived a rich but largely interior life of the mind, full of books, prayer and preaching. With his marriage to a younger woman and subsequent fatherhood, life has gotten even better. For Ames, who lost his first wife and daughter decades before, this late union has been nothing short of a miracle, against which all his thoughts and books seem to shrink.

Soon, there is a darker cloud on the horizon than his own impending death: the return to town of Jack Boughton, the son of a fellow pastor who is Ames' lifelong best friend. Boughton, who was named for Ames, is Ames' mirror image and direct opposite: he looks and sounds like a preacher, but he's also irresponsible, mean-spirited, and faithless, in both senses of the word. He may, also, become Ames' successor for his wife's affections.

Ames looks at everything as a message from God whose meaning isn't always immediately clear, and the same goes for Boughton’s troublesome appearance in his life. Ames, more than anything, wants to see, and the limits of human vision is one of the book's compelling themes. It was a divine vision of Jesus Christ in chains that caused Ames' grandfather to join John Brown's abolitionist movement during the Civil War, which costs him an eye. Ames is aware that Boughton, too, for whatever else might be said about him, is possessed of vision; Ames' feels Boughton can see right through him.

In a book replete with overlapping echoes of Biblical ruptures between fathers and sons, Ames compares himself to the Old Testament figure of Abraham, who is ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith. Boughton, likewise, is a perfect example of the New Testament parable of the prodigal son, who deserts his family, squanders his inheritance, and comes crawling home only to find unconditional forgiveness. Ames can't stand Boughton, but he finds himself in the role of a surrogate father and confessor -- a fact that allows him in unexpected ways to experience the meaning of grace.

Ames is an outright anomaly in modern fiction, which prefers religious caricatures over characters, and Gilead is both a genuinely religious novel and a remarkable novel about love. It comes from a deep religious sensibility that affords Robinson a perspective she couldn't possibly achieve otherwise: a picture of saintliness that is credible, unpredictable, and startlingly irony-free. It is, also, a real novel, if by novel we mean a work of fiction that reflects a distinct and interesting experience – the best one, in fact, I read in 2004.

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